I first met Kylie when she was about 3 years old. She came hobbling down the concrete aisle, her legs scrawny, misshapen, and unable to support her, her arms attached to braces to give her balance and support, and her face glowing like a small angel. Kylie has cerebral palsy. I was attached to her from the first.
She didn’t have the greatest mobility, so I had to watch extremely carefully as she maneuvered through doorways, up steps, and across the uneven ground. Sometimes she needed the arm braces, sometimes she could hobble around on her own as long as there was a helping hand nearby ready to grab her, and sometimes she was wheelchair-bound following a surgery.
She took riding lessons on a small white pony named Cherie who treated her like gold. When Kylie was up in the saddle, she was normal. I kept her on a leadline, but she was fully capable of sitting up and steering on her own and emphatically asking for stop and go. At 4-years-old, we played red light green light in Spanish. Kylie is a very strong personality both on and off her pony, and I love to see her body strong too when she was in the saddle. Riding that pony gave her a mobility and a confidence she couldn’t have on her own two legs.
Kylie was one of my favorite students ever in my many years of teaching riding lessons at Little Neshannock Stables. While most students loved the horses and loved to ride, none could quite match Kylie’s enthusiasm. Even on days when she wasn’t physically able to ride herself, she came with her brother to his riding lessons and I’d always take her to feed treats to her favorite ponies.
Several years ago I got married and moved away, and no longer had a riding stable to work with or students of my own. For awhile now I’ve thought about getting back into therapeutic riding, and even working to earn my NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) instructor certification. I’d say that’s been one of my dreams I hold closest to my heart.
So, last summer I made the decision to give up playing my French horn in this great little ensemble I’ve been with for years to spend my Monday evenings volunteering at Pegasus Farms. Pegasus is a therapeutic riding facility in Northeast Ohio that is certified by NARHA as a premiere accredited center. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.
Every Monday night I go to Pegasus and work under a certified instructor, Randy, with half a dozen to a dozen other volunteers. We brush the horses and tack them up for lessons, clean stalls, put on blankets and turn the horses out, and help with the lessons. I love horses, and these ones are saints — horses making even more of a difference than people can — so I love the barn work. I’ve taught lessons for enough years that I know it takes a special horse to be a school horse, let a lone a therapeutic horse.
But the best part of Monday nights are the students.
Some can barely walk on their own, some come in wheelchairs, some are fine physically but don’t have much mental response, some will talk your ear off, and some talk in a language all their own. Some are able to ride independently, some require a volunteer to lead their horses, and some require a leader and two sidewalkers to help them sit up in the saddle. There are a million different physical and mental difficulties these kids and adults deal with, but every single one finds joy in their weekly ride.
As volunteers, we interact more closely with the students than even the instructor. Randy will tell me a few things he’d like the student I’m leading to work on, and it’s my responsibility to keep an eye on him and help. Sometimes it’s sitting up straight, sometimes it’s using the hands correctly to steer, sometimes it’s using leg as well as voice aids for stop and go, sometimes it’s just getting a kid to focus on his horse.
Last week I worked with a new student, a 22-year-old girl with mixed cerebral palsy. She was in a wheelchair and unable to stand at all by herself. Very carefully we got her on her horse’s back and worked to relax her leg muscles. She had a little difficulty sitting up on her own, but got better and better the longer she was on. She’s a very a intelligent young lady and reveled in learning everything she could about her horse and how they respond. She was unable to use her legs and could barely use her arms to steer, but was interested to learn how aware her horse is of her slightest movement. I taught her to look where she wanted to go with her eyes, and her head and body would turn that direction and the horse would go. She couldn’t stop smiling.
The smiles of the students, the hugs they give, the cards they make, make it all worth it. My favorite parts though, are when one of my riders succeeds in the area on which we’ve been focusing.
I had one student for several weeks with a severe case of Downs Syndrome and almost total hearing loss. When he was on his horse, he was fascinated with staring at his feet. I worked hard to get him to look up and focus on where we were headed. In the end, he’d stare at me and smile from ear to ear, but his focus was finally outside himself.
I have another student I like to work with who is healthy physically but completely non-responsive. She sings to herself and she giggles and speaks in tongues. For weeks I worked on getting her to say “walk on” when it was time to move, and occasionally we were successful. Recently we were on an obstacle course that required a stop and go, and the students were supposed to use their voice for a walk, but Randy told us she wouldn’t. Lo and behold, after a lot of coaxing, she would say “walk on” almost immediately every time I asked. We even got a “whoa” once (we’re pretty sure that she realized it meant the horse would stop, and she didn’t want to stop so she wouldn’t say it any more).
I could go on and on about the benefits of therapeutic riding … both for the students and the people who work with them. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, although I prefer to focus on the students and make it rewarding for them.
You don’t have to have any horse experience to volunteer at a place like Pegasus. They’ll provide you with some training and make sure you know the basics. And working with the other volunteers is half the fun — you bless each other too! To find a certified center or instructor in your area, check out NAHRA’s website. I am a firm believer in giving back to the community. I love to ride and work with horses myself, but I love to spend my time sharing something I love with others, especially to those with disabilities because I’ve seen what a difference it makes.